Reflections from New Zealand

I just returned from a 6-week adventure across New Zealand’s south island with a group of 10 teen unschoolers and 2 fellow staff. I always learn a lot on these trips: about trip leading, the destination country, and myself. Here’s what I learned this time (alongside some of my favorite trip photos).

Hiking in NZ

Regarding Trip Leading

Facilitating an outdoors-oriented trip can be difficult…

…when participants have different ability levels.

For a long time, I avoided organizing physical activity-oriented Unschool Adventures trips. The logic was simple: if one person can’t perform the required physical activity, then it will hold up the whole group.

Then I started thinking: I’ve led lots of backpacking trips for teens. I know how to screen for different ability levels and accommodate them. I can totally run a hiking-oriented trip. So I organized a 6-week adventure with the mission of walking from one side of New Zealand to the other.

And then my fears came true.

On the group’s first day of backpacking, one member of our group became stricken with massive foot blisters. And by massive I mean: truly larger and more numerous than anything I’ve seen in my 19 years of backcountry experience. We treated the blisters, but they almost immediately returned, making walking with a backpack pretty much impossible for that member.

So I improvised. I rented a bike for the blistered member. I hired bus shuttles and a rental van to skip over sections that we otherwise would have walked. I rearranged the itinerary to give us more time working on farms, with lots of optional day hikes for the rest of the group. I myself stayed with the injured member in a city for five days while the rest of group (and the other two trip leaders) went on our big, end-of-trip, not-to-be-cancelled backpacking segment.

The improvisation worked. Despite the last-minute changes, our group bonded closely and feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone was satisfied in the end—parents and students alike. And I walked away with some inexpensive lessons in program organizing, participant screening, and on-the-fly improvising.

Group meeting in NZ backcountry

My personal energy for leading international trips is dwindling.

Don’t get me wrong: Leading 6-week-long international trips is a blast, and the young adults with whom I work with are a pleasure. But trip leading is incredibly draining.

This was my fifth international Unschool Adventures trip in five years (following two to Argentina, one to Australia, and one to Chile-Peru-Argentina). It’s been a great run, and now it’s time for a break. At a minimum, I’ll take next year off from int’l trip leading. (That doesn’t mean there won’t be an international trip– U.A. staff member Dev Carey is putting together a killer Costa Rica itinerary for early 2014.)

Ben Lomond

Regarding New Zealand

NZ is a fantastic place for farm volunteering

During our adventure our group split our time between hiking, farm volunteering, and exploring cities. While we enjoyed all of these activities, I sense that our farm volunteering stints–three days on a family farm, four days on a vineyard, and three days  on another family farm–created the most vivid memories.

Each our hosts were kind, gracious, and highly experienced with volunteers. We exchanged four hours of daily labor for the chance to camp on their land and use their kitchens and bathrooms. It was a great deal for both parties.

If you’re ever in New Zealand, I highly recommend setting up a volunteering gig through, which I used to find all of our hosts.

(Big thanks to the Jefferson family in Lauderdale, Tom and team at Northburn Station, and Carla in Cardrona!)

Cleaning a farm water race

Regarding Life

Multitasking is dumb

One of the most stressful moments of my trip was the day when, at the same time:

  • a new CPA I was working with wasted $450 of my money (and lots of my time)
  • every single one of my websites was taken down by a malware attack
  • the foot blister problem reared its ugly head

What I should have been focusing on was only the blister problem. Instead, I let my self-assigned roles of accountant and webmaster pull my attention from the trip by demanding that I multitask at exactly the wrong moment.

Eventually I smartened up and chose to work with my old CPA and hire an anti-malware service to monitor and clean my sites.

Partner dancing lesson

I don’t need to check my email all the time

New Zealand provided a much-needed media break. At home in the states, I check my email constantly throughout the day—probably 20 or 30 times, if I’m honest with myself. In NZ, thanks to expensive and hard-to-find wi-fi, I checked email twice, or once, or not at all. And do you know what? The world didn’t end.

Tim Ferriss wrote about the twice-a-day email strategy in The Four Hour Work-Week, and I’ve often thought about employing it. It took a trip to New Zealand to actually make me experience it. Perhaps with a tool like Self-Control I can continue this practice at home.


I still crave continuous, local, face-to-face community—probably in “school” form

Those of you who followed my blog in 2012 know what comes next.

In New Zealand, I spent a lot of time developing future Unschool Adventures programs. I worked on a few exciting ideas for college alternative programs (either a semester or year long). But what captured my attention most was the idea of starting a high school alternative program in Asheville, NC. This idea fed my ongoing desire to build a local community of self-directed learners that will last for years to come.

When I posted a single line about the Asheville “school” concept on my Facebook, the response was huge. And not only is the wider community excited for this idea, but there seems to be a local need: there are truly no decent high school alternatives (free schools, North Star-style learning centers, or home/unschool groups) for teens in the Asheville area.

Look forward to hearing more about that idea on this blog soon.

The NZ13 group (minus Adrian)

Thanks everyone—it was an awesome trip!

In other news:

  • I’ve extended the $50 Early Bird discount for Trailblazer Gathering! If you know a self-directed learner age 18-22 who’s looking for community, direction, and inspiration—and an adventure-packed trip to Asheville—tell them to register before April 15th.
  • This year’s Writing Retreat (Oct-Nov 2013 in Crested Butte, Colorado) for teens ages 14-19 is now open, and we already have 10 applicants!

See all the New Zealand trip photos.



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